Minnesota legislative leaders Wednesday proposed beefing up the state's capacity to respond to crude oil accidents — and to make railroads and pipeline companies pay for it.
But the sponsors of the "Minnesota Oil Spill Defense Act" said they don't know how much it would cost to train and equip emergency responders to fight catastrophic crude oil fires, such as the derailment and fiery explosion of an oil train Dec. 30 near Casselton, N.D.
Standing along a rail line used by oil trains, two DFL legislators from Minneapolis — Rep. Frank Hornstein and Sen. Scott Dibble — said the state needs to help urban and rural fire fighters to upgrade their emergency preparedness for crude oil spills and disasters.
"Because of the oil booms in North Dakota and Alberta, we are experiencing a tremendous increase in oil transportation traffic by rail, pipelines and there is even a proposal to haul oil on ocean-bound tankers on Lake Superior," Hornstein said at the outdoor news conference.
The legislators, who chair House and Senate transportation committees, are proposing a fee — perhaps 1/100th of a cent — on every gallon of oil that flows through the state by rail or pipeline. That would affect Enbridge Energy, whose pipelines carry crude oil across northern Minnesota, and BNSF Railway Co. and Canadian Pacific, whose rail lines carry about eight unit trains of crude oil through the state daily.
The tens of millions of dollars raised by such a fee annually would fund such things as equipment to deliver massive amounts of foam to burning oil tankers, and an array of other emergency planning and training measures, said Hornstein, who described the state's current capability as "woefully inadequate."
Chris Parsons, a St. Paul fire captain and president of the Minnesota Professional Fire Fighters, said the organization strongly supports the proposed legislation. He said crude oil shipping accidents like the one in Casselton are sure to happen again.
"It is just a matter of time before it occurs in a heavily populated area," Parsons said in an interview.
Railroads have emergency response teams and equipment to fight major rail fires. Indeed, a BNSF crew fought the Casselton oil train fire, in which 18 tankers were breached. BNSF and Canadian Pacific have long worked with fire departments on emergency training and planning.
"We look forward to the opportunity to discuss the legislation with legislators and the administration, as well as our safety record and the current emergency response resources we have in place," said BNSF spokeswoman Amy McBeth in an e-mail Wednesday.
She said 99.99 percent of all BNSF hazmat rail shipments, including crude oil, reached their destination last year without an accident-caused release, but that "one incident is one too many" and the railroad is working to prevent them by investing in infrastructure, training employees and inspecting track and equipment.
Said Ed Greenberg, spokesman for Canadian Pacific: "We have to review the specifics of the draft legislation. Our railroad is ready to work with the state of Minnesota going forward.'' Minneapolis is the U.S. headquarters for Canadian Pacific.
Hornstein said the legislation, which is still being drafted, will incorporate proposals from the cabinet-level rail safety panel that Gov. Dayton created after the Casselton accident. Dayton already has supported enhanced rail inspection and emergency preparedness.
The proposal also has the support of MN350, an environmental group that opposes crude oil pipelines and rail shipping. The group's attorney, Paul Blackburn, is helping legislators draft the language.
Another supporter is the United Transportation Union, which on Wednesday again picketed Canadian Pacific's headquarters to promote rail safety. UTU State Director Phillip Qualy said the union supports crude-by-rail shipping, and believes it can be done safely.